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Eye On Olympia

Tue., Jan. 22, 2008, 6:18 p.m.

Family Leave: an update…

One of the most interesting discussions in Olympia between now and mid-March is likely to be how lawmakers decide to pay for a program they voted last year to launch in October 2009.

A paid family leave program patterned loosely on California's, it would give a $250-a-week stipend to parents who take up to five weeks off from work to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.

Today, the House Appropriations Committee took a fresh look at the projected costs.

A 13-member task force last year spent months trying to figure out how to run the program, what it would cost, and how to pay for it.

Among the options for financing it: a sales tax on carbonated beverages, one on candy and gum, a liquor surcharge, a tax on hours worked or wages paid, or simply pulling the money out of the state general fund. In the end, the task force recommended tapping the general fund for the first 4 years of the program.

"A lot of people want the services, but when it comes to pay for it, that's the more difficult question," Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, told the House Appropriations Committee this afternoon. And despite Republicans' oft-voiced concerns about the wisdom of launching the program without launching a way to pay for it, Dickerson said the program will happen.

"The Legislature has done this before. It's not the first time we've done this," she said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget includes $6.2 million for the state Employment Security Department to develop the computer system to run the program.

Total startup costs are estimated by the department to be $10 million, $6.3 of which are technology costs and $3.1 million of which are staff for rule-making, program development, facilities and publicity. Once costs stabilize around 2013, the administration is expected to take about 49 people and $8.1 million a year.

How many parents would claim the benefit? Employment Security's best guess is about 26,000 to 32,000 a year, at a benefit cost of $31 million to $39 million a year.

Factoring in growth as more people learn about the program and other variables, it's expected to cost somewhere between $82 million and $110 million for the next two-year budget cycle (2009-2011).

Rep. Steve Conway, weighing in at the Appropriations hearing today, said that one reason for not wanting to lock in a permanent source of funding at the outset of the program is that nobody really knows how many people will apply and what the long-term cost will be.

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